Letting Go of Unhealthy Friendships

My new blog friend Cara is finishing out her series on friendship with a syncroblog, and I thought I’d join in. Check out the rest of the posts here.

Flickr CC Julie Davis

Flickr CC Julie Davis

Facebook. After ten years of friendship I was finding out she was marrying some man I’d never even heard of via social media. I thought about adding the obligatory comment to the ever-growing list of “OH MY GOSH THIS IS AMAZING!” and overly-enthusiastic emoticons, but pulled out my cellphone instead. I still had her number so I shot her a quick I-just-saw-you’re-engaged-so-congratulations-and-all-that-jazz text.

It was weird to text her but it felt like not acknowledging it might somehow feel weirder. After all, when I’d gotten engaged she was the very first non-immediate family member I told; at the time, it wouldn’t have made sense to tell anyone else first. But our relationship had changed a lot since then.

She responded to my text, and we tried to chat about her engagement. But it felt awkward, stilted. It’d been too long.

*****

We met right after I graduated from high school in a tiny little town in Eastern Europe that was surrounded by sunflower fields which were so intensely yellow you could barely look directly at them. I was spending three and a half months living abroad; I’d hopped on a plane heading to a country I’d never been to before where someone I didn’t know was waiting with a cardboard sign with my name on it. I met a lot of people, but most of the friendships couldn’t stand the distance once I was back in my dear old rainy Washington. But she made enough of an effort to make it work.

She was surrounded by another culture, another language, living in another timezone but she was just an email away. I’d write her an email before going to bed and often I had a reply waiting for me by the time I woke up the next morning. When she eventually came stateside communication got even easier. The mail now took only a matter of days instead of a month, texting was a new option, and phone calls replaced emails. “Remember,” she’d often sign her cards or letters, “I’m just a phone call / text message / email away!”

Due to the distance, I thought of her like an imaginary friend: invisible to everyone but me. And when I think back, I suspect our friendship eventually, very slowly, became imaginary. I just wasn’t willing to see it or admit it. After years of being in constant contact she slowly began to fade away. She only called when she wanted to vent or needed help filling out her college application or creating a new resume. When someone very dear to me was in the hospital on suicide watch and I was terrified, frazzled, barely keeping my head above water, she didn’t return my messages. The birthday and Christmas presents eventually stopped coming completely. She was no longer just a phone call / text message / email away.

*****

But I can be stubborn — or perhaps just kind of clueless — when it comes to friendships. I refuse to admit I’ve heard the Fat Lady, and I think if I just try a little harder that’ll finally do the trick. I hadn’t been the one who’d faded away; I wasn’t the one who wanted it to be over. So as we awkwardly texted about her engagement I agreed to talking on the phone later in the week, which resulted in even more awkwardness. (I think I ended up babbling about my new-ish dairy allergy because I was nervous; I’d never felt nervous talking with her, not even when we’d first met.)

There was too much polluted water under our little bridge. I was too hurt. Too much had happened. As much as I missed our old friendship and my old friend, there was no going back to yesterday.

Pleasantries didn’t feel pleasant anymore; instead, they somehow hurt.

It was time to stop hoping or trying or bothering. It was time to stop wondering what happened. It was time to throw the bookmark away and close the book.

It was time to say goodbye.

I’m learning that saying goodbye to unhealthy friendships — even friendships that were once mutually supportive, caring and fun but morphed with time — is an act of self-care. It’s hard but it’s healthy.

I’ve had a lot of unhealthy friendships that I’ve allowed to continue for longer than I should’ve because I didn’t think saying goodbye was an option. I’m still figuring out this friendship thing. I’m still learning that friendship doesn’t mean functioning as someone’s free on-call therapist. Friendship doesn’t mean dropping everything because someone who never normally even calls wants you to proof-read a college paper. Friendship doesn’t mean investing your soul in people who put down your victories and minimize your heartache. Friendship doesn’t mean never saying Ouch! when your feelings are deeply hurt by your friend because you don’t want to rock the boat or are afraid of how they’d respond. Friendship doesn’t mean being someone’s “project” — or turning them into a project, either. Friendship doesn’t mean laying on the floor like a forgotten child’s plaything waiting for the next time you’re needed.

I think friendship means walking together, side-by-side. It’s a mutual thing. Or at least, it should be. But people are messy so this friendship thing is, too.

It’s funny because in some ways I think friendship is more valuable to me now as an adult than it was when I was younger but at the same time I’m learning to hold my friendships more loosely. I’m trying to be thankful for the people who have passed through my life but turned out to not be major characters in my own drama. Sometimes distance or busyness or changes in seasons of life get in the way. Sometimes I need to draw boundaries when friendships are no longer healthy or even say goodbye.

I’m learning to be open to letting friendships change organically, instead to attempting to freeze them at my favorite season. Sometimes people pop in and out of our lives; sometimes their exits are final, maybe even dramatic. It’s hard to let people go, but what I’ve found in the last year since I last spoke to my old friend is once I stopped investing so much time into an unhealthy friendship, I had time to develop new friendships. And I was able to finally notice the people in my life who are willing to meet me halfway when it comes to this messy business of friend-making.

The Scary Act of Welcome

lightstock_12486_xsmall_user_3645479“You’re my sister’s friend, right?” said the sales clerk at the mall. We’d met before. But as usual he didn’t recall, so he introduced himself again (introduction number: three). He wasn’t exactly the brightest cellphone screen at the Verizon store, and he probably would’ve made a great Now Kids, This is Why You Shouldn’t Do Drugs example for DARE. He reminded me of a shaggy 20-something puppy, lovable and pitiful all rolled into one.

“You know my sister from … church?” he asked. I was attending a Presbyterian church at the time — PC (USA), for those of you who know or care. I loved a lot of things about the denomination, still do, but had never felt fully at home, fully comfortable at the church. It’s not that no one ever attempted to welcome me. The older members of the congregation were warm and sweet and would try to greet me regularly with, “Good morning, Shannon!” (Differentiating me from my eight-years-younger, shorter, much-skinnier sister was never one of their strong suits. I think it took a while before they even realized there were two of us.)

I said that, yes, I knew his sister from church. “I’ve thought about going to church,” he said organizing novelty, nerdy, sometimes off-color merchandise on the shelf. “But everyone at churches always seem so happy. I’m not happy enough to go to church.” His life wasn’t always happy. He wasn’t always happy. Maybe he wasn’t welcomed.

He probably didn’t fully believe me, but I said I got it. And I really did. I got the I’m-not-happy-or-perfect-enough-for-this-shit feeling. Growing up in modern evangelicalism, at least for me, was a lot like growing up in an air-pocket left over from the 1950’s. And the air was getting stale.

I read a book in middle school for my church small group that had an entire chapter dedicated to the importance of “cultivating a submissive spirit” while we were young so that we’d be nice little godly June Cleavers by the time we’d found ourselves husbands. And, much like the actual 1950’s, our own lives and families didn’t look anything like Leave it the Beaver and I didn’t feel anything like a junior June Cleaver. Things were messy, sometimes even scary. So we faked it. We smiled, we nodded, we looked the part. And we likely felt like we were each the only imposers, the only ones crying or screaming behind our perfectly painted faces.

Our messiness wasn’t welcomed. Or brokenness wasn’t allowed. We weren’t happy enough.

While sometimes I feel — and perhaps this is unsubstantiated — like the pressure to fake a life-is-perfect smile is exacerbated within the context of church, it certainly isn’t limited to church. I felt pretty guarded around the time I met my now-husband. I was about 23 and just starting college; life was only just beginning to recover from a tornado of crisis that’d ripped the shingles off the roof and pulled the white picked fence up by its roots. I felt scary and broken and like no one would really get the frightful, damaged parts of me that I kept out of sight. And, based on all of my experiences up to this point, this idea wasn’t unfounded. In fact, I knew if I took the risk of opening up they might even make me feel worse if they squirted some citric-drenched happy-go-lucky cliches all over my already raw little heart. I wasn’t okay. I was hurting; I was angry, the result of the hurting. But I smiled.

I’d felt guarded around the Mr. Man too as we were getting to know each other until one day when we were sitting in the school library talking, and somehow the conversation turned from midterms and teachers with unclear assignment sheets to loss, grief. He talked about his grandparents who were very dear to him, and the pain of losing them. His voice choked up as he blinked a little too much in order to keep the excess water from dripping onto his cheek.

He’d felt the tornado tear through his life. A tornado that brings destruction and loss, never munchkins nor ruby slippers. There was something hiding behind his smile, too. And knowing that allowed me to slowly demolish, brick by brick, my own walls that’d been standing steadfastly between us.

From the time we’re little kids we’ve been told by society and the tall, imagine-less ones to “Sit ups straight” and “Cross your legs” and “Don’t talk about the ant infestation in the kitchen.” And not only is letting our vulnerable selves out for a walk scary, it also seems to be considered worse than slouching. Don’t let them see. Cover it up. Smile. So there’s something about having people say “Me too!” in response to my cracks and insecurities that makes me feel welcomed, safe. “It’s okay, we’re like you. We get it. You’re welcomed. Welcome.”

Anne Lamott, who I consider to be the patron saint of the broken and messy, says: “I told [my friends] about my most vile behavior, and they said, ‘Me, too!’ I told them about my crimes against the innocent, especially me. They said, ‘Ditto. Yay. Welcome.'” She goes on to say, “This welcome towards myself took a big adjustment, a rebalancing of my soul. There had been so much energy thrown into performance, achievement, and disguise” (from Small Victories, pg. 22-23). We get good at disguise.

About a year ago, just a few weeks after the Mr. Man and I had gotten married, a friend and her husband came over for dinner. I was warming up I-just-cleaned-out-the-cupboards homemade soup on the stove as we talked in the kitchen. She pointed at my stove top, all black and shiny and perfectly clean. There wasn’t a single crumb on that thing. “It’s so clean!” she said. “Mine’s never clean.” I didn’t say anything; I didn’t tell her about how I’d assumed her stove top must have been clean enough to eat right off of (everyone has clean stove tops expect for me, right?), so I’d been frantically scrubbing away at the various caked-on stuff only a few minutes before they’d arrived. I’d worn makeup, too — don’t always do that. And I’d made the bed and dusted. I’d cleaned up. I’d smiled.

Maybe I should’ve told her about my frantic scrubbing; we could’ve laughed about it. Maybe I should’ve said, “Me too!” Maybe that’s how we welcome each other, and how we eventually, slowly but gradually, learn to welcome ourselves. Maybe saying “Me too!” is one of the first steps towards the self-care we all so desperately need.

Link Love: For the Writers (Bloggers)

Flickr cc Jen

Flickr cc Jen

Maybe you don’t personally identify as a writer, maybe you’re like me and are more apt to claim the word blogger. But regardless of what we choose to call ourselves, we do spend a decent amount of time, well, writing. So here are some of my favorite articles on the subject of writing. Some have some practical ideas, others are more inspirational. Hope you enjoy.

1. 4 New Year’s Resolutions for Memoirists by Theo Pauline Nestor

All three resolutions are spot-on but I loved her thoughts on number three: This Year I will not shun drama.

In real life, none of us want to be known as a drama queen, but in memoir, you need to embrace the drama of your own story and not be shy about playing it up here and there … Because being dramatic means fighting the conditioning that tells many of us to stay small, to not make a big deal of things, to not make ourselves “the center of the universe.” But in our memoirs, we are the center of the universe. As writers of memoir, being the center of the universe is our job.

Fellow bloggers, whether we identify personally as being memoirists, memoir is what most of us are mucking around with (even some of the food bloggers write a little memoir). And these resolutions, therefore, apply equally to us. Within our little corners of the internet, we are the center of the universe. Being the center of the universe is our job. So don’t shy away from a good ol’ dramatic story that focuses on you. (And do yourself a favor and check out the rest of that article.)

2. Famous Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary by Maria Popova

I was an avid journal keeper throughout most of elementary school and middle school, and on and off once I hit high school. I’ve attempted to pick up the practice a few times here and there as an adult but always stopped before I’d really forged a new habit.

I’d decide my penmanship was too unpleasant to stare at, my journal (I refused to call it a diary) seemed “too emotional,” and, mainly, because I noticed how the things I proclaimed and professed as being absolutely true to me changed so dramatically over time. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to fully remember in full color what my younger self had believed, but after reading this article I’m tempted to give the practice another go. This quote in particular struck a cord:

A journal is an artificially permanent record of thought and inner life, which are invariably transient … We are creatures of remarkable moodiness and mental turbulence, and what we think we believe at any given moment — those capital-T Truths we arrive at about ourselves and the world — can be profoundly different from our beliefs a decade, a year, and sometimes even a day later.

This, perhaps, is the greatest gift of the diary — its capacity to stand as a living monument to our own fluidity, a reminder that our present selves are chronically unreliable predictors of our future values and that we change unrecognizably over the course of our lives. (Popova)

3. The Daily Rituals of Famous Writers 

This article has 10 literary examples taken exclusively from the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, which I haven’t read but might need to check out (I feel like in addition to possibly having some helpful suggestions, it’d also be an entertaining read).

Here’s a excerpt from the article about Charles Dickens’ daily rituals:

[H]is study had to be precisely arranged, with his writing desk placed in front of a window and, on the desk itself, his writing materials – goose-quill pens and blue ink – laid out alongside several ornaments: a small vase of fresh flowers, a large paper knife, a gilt leaf with a rabbit perched upon it, and two bronze statuettes (one depicting a pair of fat toads duelling, the other a gentleman swarmed with puppies).

Sounds like Dickens was rather meticulous in the arrangement of his desk. And he used goose-quill pens wand blue ink — which honestly makes me feel like I have no reason not to write because I can just sit down and bang away at my keyboard which seems like it’d be much easier and a whole lot faster than working with goose-quill pens. And I can easily pick up an entire paragraph and relocated to wherever it fits better with only only a few clicks. (However, I guess one disadvantage to writing in the computer age is the level of potential distractions — world news, Facebook, cat videos — well, if I’m honest mainly cat videos.)

So what are your thoughts on keeping a daily journal? Have you had any luck with it? Do you have a daily ritual when it comes to writing or some other art form? Any New Year’s writing resolutions or recent goals?  

An Open Letter to Myself: Non-Resolutions for 2015

Flickr CC Marwa Morgan

Flickr CC Marwa Morgan

Well, 2015 has finally stopped by for a brief introduction. Hopefully it’s a kind year without too much of a bite. But it’s hard to say at this point since we’re not yet on a first-name basis. Regardless, everyone seems to be planning out who they’re going to be in 2015 par usual. Maybe the beginning of a squeaky-clean new year is a time for dreaming and re-imagining, but it seems to mainly be about counting calories.

It’s time once again for resolution making. Resolutions which will, in a matter of weeks or maybe even days, be completely abandoned, forgotten. Many of the resolutions focus on self-improvement. They remind me of an infomercial: But wait! If you start today you too can become the skinnier, prettier, better-organized you in the new year! But even if they were to throw in that set of steak knives, they’d still neglect our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies (aside from what size and shape you “ought” to be). Each one seems to point a cold, judgmental finger at our cracks, wrinkles, and perfect imperfections. “You’re not good enough” and “You’d better try harder this year,” they nag. You haven’t been perfect, you know it, and it seems like it’s time you’d better get your act together.

But this year my New Year’s wish for you is that you make self-care, not self-improvement, the focus in 2015.
I hope you take the time to feed your soul.

Sip hot tea, slowly. Curl up in bed with a beautiful novel, and never mind how long it takes you to finish it. Write things that no one else will see. Make messes. Play with scissors and glue and paint. Carve out time to be completely, beautifully alone. And make time to laugh and talk and share with others, too.

I hope you’re more present than organized.

Life isn’t measured in the number of clean dishes put away neatly in the cupboard. So watch the seasons slowly become warmer and brighter and then, once again, work their way back to winter. Hold hands with your husband while you’re on a date or just walking through the grocery store. Don’t forget those who’ve remembered you when things have been crashing, clamoring down around you. Turn the music off, put your phone down and feel the breeze, listen to the birds, watch the people strolling by. This, this is your life.

I hope you believe your husband when he says you’re beautiful a little more than you do today.

When you look in the mirror all you see are the hairs out of place, the dark circles under your eyes, your crooked tooth, and the scars from an old surgery. But that isn’t what he sees. Society has taught you to only see the supposed flaws; try and see what he sees. Even just a little.

I hope you take care of your body the way you’d care for someone you love and cherish, not an object that isn’t cooperating.

If you exercise, do it because your body is special, alive and deserves to be cared for, not because it’s some malfunctioning machine that needs to be fixed. If you watch what you eat, do it to take care of yourself not in order to fit into that old pair of jeans or look more like some photo shopped model. Talk kindly about yourself; you’d worry about others’ feelings, maybe it’s time you worried about your own.

I hope you make time to laugh and to love.

Sing off-key to the radio with your husband (even though he’s never off-key). Stay up late giggling or having serious discussions with your sister. Call your mom just to say you love her. Send old fashioned stick-a-stamp-on-it letters when you’ve been thinking of a friend. Make those you love a priority because time is precious, and so are those around you.

I don’t know how 2015 will go. Maybe you’ll look back on it as a golden year or maybe it’ll be cold and bleak; I imagine it’ll likely have may varying shades from both palettes. But I do know that even if you made lengthy list of resolutions and tried to keep each one, you still won’t be perfect this year. But that’s alright, really it is. Perfection has never been the goal.

“Halfway Out of the Dark,” Thoughts on Doctor Who and Advent

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I was struck by the darkness and the sense of yearning as the Mr. Man and I sat on our green leather couch in our living room, attempting to get a little caught up on the advent readings. As the good little quasi (soon to be?) Lutherans that we are, we decided to give this whole advent thing a go (even though we were already several weeks behind schedule; it seemed like doing it a little would be better than not at all). So we sat there snuggled up together, him reading out loud. And all of the verses were about darkness and longing. Longing for reconciliation, wholeness, and for things to stop being so damn messed up.

When I think of advent I usually think of Christmas. Tiny Jesus in a cow-feeder. A midnight Christmas Eve service: the warm glow of the candles, the feeling of joy that comes with the carols, and the marry-Christmas greetings and hugs that follow before everyone walks out of church in the direction of their cars. But advent starts in the dark. It starts with longing. It starts with brokenness.

And Christmas Day isn’t the end of the story. Things weren’t all nice and peachy after that; Easter hadn’t arrive yet (there’s a not-so-happy thing called a crucifixion still coming). But there was a new sense of hope. Hope for reconciliation. Hope for healing. Hope for wholeness. They were halfway out of the dark.

It reminds me of a line from my favorite Doctor Who Christmas special, a sci-fi retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, ‘Well done. Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.’ Back on Earth we call this Christmas. Or the Winter Solstice.”

Christmases vary as much as the years they’re submerged in. I’ve had happy Hallmark-y Christmases, with family and rain (it’s Washington, what did you expect?) and wonderful presents under the tree. There have been others that were riddled with grief; every classic claymation special or cover of yet another classic yuletide song seemed like a new form of bereavement torture. I’ve had a Christmas where money was tight and Christians were offensive and not-exactly-charitable in the name of “helping the less fortunate” as they placed broken toys under our tree. This holiday season? This year I’m feeling halfway out of the dark.

It’s been a long, hard year. Yes, there have sure been some lovely moments doused in glitter and rainbows, but a lot of the year was dark and filled with longing — longing for healing, wholeness, and a little piece of mind.

Over the last year my clinical depression reached the point of becoming truly crippling. When I’d go to the doctor and was asked to fill out the emotional-and-mental-well-being form, I’d select five out-of-five and “extremely difficult” all the way down the list of questions. Sometimes I literally wouldn’t get out of bed the entire day; my husband would come home to find me still dressed in my PJs, unshowered, and unfed. The depression, like black, sticky tar that you simply can’t shake, was surrounding me, engulfing me, and drowning me.

It finally reached the point where I couldn’t deny there was a problem anymore; I was drowning and I couldn’t pull myself out. So I took the hard, scary step of telling my doctor exactly how bad things had gotten. Medication. Counseling. These aren’t the sorts of things your brain likely conjures up when you hear about “Christmas miracles,” but even though I’m not done with this long process it already feels miraculous; I get out of bed everyday, shower and brush my hair and teeth, eat cereal for breakfast, cook lunch and dinner, and sort of keep up on things around the house. I’m feeling so much better, in fact, that I’ve decided to go back to school to finish the last two years of my BA in Cultural Studies.

It’s still hard though. The last few days I’ve felt like crap thanks to a change in my dosage. But I’m functioning. I’m gaining back my life. I’m halfway out of the dark hole of depression.

There was other darkness, other brokenness this year. My marriage nearly fell apart, and I spent the longest two and a half weeks of my life near the end of the summer sleeping on my mom’s couch. So as we hung our First Christmas Together ornament on the tree, I cried. A mix of thankfulness, hopefulness, joy, and heartache over the fact things ever got so bad. There’s still hurt but there’s hope, there’s light ahead. We’re halfway out of a very dark place.

There’s been spiritual brokenness, too. Hurt, so much hurt from past churches and religious leaders and even well-meaning friends. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen (completely and utterly out of context), it’s been a cold and a broken hallelujah. But I’m starting to feel a little less cold and a little less broken. Things aren’t all healed up and there are certainly still scars, but spiritually I’m feeling halfway out of the dark, too.

When I think about it, in a way it seems fitting that the holidays would take place the same month as the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, because despite all the icicle lights framing your neighbor’s roof or your uncle’s giant inflatable Santa snow-globe that keeps getting fogged up, December can be a dark time of year for a lot of people. For some, it’s joyous and celebratory but for others it’s a cruel reminder of loved ones lost, dreams that have fractured beyond repair, and how there won’t be anything waiting, below where a tree should be standing, on Christmas morning.

I’m lucky this year because despite how rocky and beak a lot of 2014 has been, I’m feeling halfway out of the dark. I feel hope the way I feel a sense of excitement when the Mr. Man and I go to Zoo Lights to celebrate the winter solstice or joy when I sing carols at a midnight Christmas Eve service, candle in hand. I’m not out of the dark yet. There’ll be more doctor’s appointments. More hard conversations. More “hey, God, it hurts to read the bible, I can’t read it, because people have used it to hurt instead of to heal.” But I know the sun will eventually stay for longer visits; Easter will eventually come; the flowers will eventually bloom; winter won’t last forever.

There’s hope. There’s a little light a midst all that freezing, pitch black winter. But that doesn’t mean spring is here yet, either.

So as a Scrooge-y old chap in my favorite TV show said: Well done. Well done, everyone. We’re halfway out of the dark.

10 Things NaNoWriMo Taught Me About Writing

Flickr cc Jeffrey James Pacres

Flickr cc Jeffrey James Pacres

Well, I did it. I successfully wrote my first 50K. As many of you likely already know, November is National Novel Writing Month (NANoWriMo), so tons of would-be novelists spent the month banging away at their keyboards (many are still banging away because it officially doesn’t end until midnight on the 30th).

I crossed the 50,000 word mark yesterday. I’m now the proud creator of a gargantuan Word document that, at least as-is, will never be shown to another living soul. But NaNoWriMo isn’t about having a completed novel, it’s about learning to not hyper-edit yourself and just spit that sucker out because, really, you can go back and edit and rewrite it to your heart’s content in December.

However, I honestly think that the most valuable thing I gained from my month of writing dangerously isn’t an in-process novel but an education in the messy art that is creative writing. Things I learned this month:

1. Don’t look back. 

This was one of the hardest parts for me, especially at first. I hadn’t realized how much I edited each sentence, played with each word, before committing them to paper. I thought this meant my writing was coming out better, prettier — but my perfectionism was keeping me from writing. I wasn’t able to make progress and I was missing out on what can happen when your imagination can run with something.

If you want to get anything done and you wan to write creatively, you have to stop looking back.

Yes, it likely is horrible — maybe even your own mother wouldn’t want to hang it on her fridge — but just keep going. You can send in the medics later; it’s not like that comma splice or muddled metaphor or complete lack of organization are going anywhere. You’ll fix it, just not right this moment. Right now, you’re writing. So just keep writing.

2. You don’t have to love your first-draft — in fact, you might even hate it.

In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life Anne Lamott teaches her readers about first drafts (or what she calls the shitty first draft because it’s just that horrendous). She writes:

People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars … that they take a in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.

The reality is, even when you’ve put in plenty of hours thinking about your project beforehand, the first draft will still totally and utterly stink. You might feel embarrassed that you wrote something so trite or dumb or flat. And that’s okay, that’s how this whole long and messy writing business goes.

3. It’s about habit, not inspiration.

While inspiration is fantastic and can make you feel like words are shooting out of your fingertips like you’re some sort of linguistic Spiderman, it rarely shows up on time. And it’s loyal Habit that helps keep things chugging along when Inspiration stands you up for yet another dinner date. If you wait for inspiration to show up, you’ll never get that novel written or update your blog on an even somewhat regular basis.

Building a habit takes about four to six weeks, and what a great habit writing every day would be. And is actually why I decided to do NaNoWriMo.

4. Bribes can work.

This can take many forms (I recommend avoiding bribing yourself with food or money because over time that could lead to some other less-desirable results), but for me it was novels. I wanted to read Around the World in 80 Days and The Fault in Our Stars; however, like the good little quasi-novelist that I am, I forbid myself from my books until I’d made word count for the day. (Yes, there was a bit of whining on my part but it helped get the job done.)

5. Treat it like it’s your job.

If I were working I’d eliminate distractions as much as I could in order to focus on the job at hand. But when I’m writing, too often there are distractions everywhere. Facebook alerts me that someone commented, my cellphone informs me that I have a new text message, there’s the dishes in the sink, and my cat decides that right now would be the most ideal time to become sociable after ignoring me all day. If I want to write something, I need to focus on it. And that means cutting down on distractions by signing off of social media and turning off my phone. (I never was able to figure out what to do about my cat. If you have a cat and still manage to write something everyday, extra props.)

6. Small choices matter. 

I think that one of the reasons I was able to complete my 50,000 word beast is because I was conscientious about the fact that small choices could completely derail my month-long commitment to writing. For example, when I hadn’t written yet and was starting to feel tired and would really rather just go to bed and not worry about the stupid thing, I’d remind myself that if I missed that one day it’d put me over 1,600 words behind schedule … those would be words I’d not only have to still pick up later but if that happened enough it could cost me my final prize.

So I wrote when I was tired. I wrote when I was sick. My writing wasn’t as good then, and sometimes I didn’t write as much as I would have wanted to but I still did it. While I don’t usually have a word-count goal looming over my head, I do have a few personal writing projects that I’d like to get outside of my head and out onto paper. But that won’t happen if I don’t make it a priority. Every time I choose to watch Gilmore Girls instead of writing, every time I decide I’m too tired or not feeling creative, or just really not in the mood I’m risking my project; I’m risking whether it will ever reach its completion.

7. Support is helpful only if you have the right kind of support. 

Choose your support system wisely. Friends who say “Oh, that can’t be true. I’m sure it’s not that bad.” when you tell them you’ve just written the worst 50,000 words of your life are not the ones to enlist in this elite task-force. You need people who can tell you, “Yeah, writing is hard but do it anyway” and “You’re right, it probably isn’t that great yet but don’t worry about it because rough drafts always stink.” People who will remind you that it’s okay to write horrible-no-good-I’ll-never-show-it-to-a-living-soul-drafts and celebrate with you when you make word count, those are the best people to whine at.

I recommend picking up Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird; she’ll tell you all the things a supportive writing friend would, and probably in a much funnier way, too.

8. Writing is a process.

A long, painful, I-have-no-idea-why-I-do-it-sometimes process. And if you want to write anything good, you’re going to have to fight with that demon Perfectionism because he’s wrong, man. First drafts aren’t just in need of a comma or a little more detail in that third paragraph; they need to be mined for the redeeming sentences and ideas and then, ultimately, burned so that no one will ever know how horrible your rough drafts are.

If you’re like me and everything usually comes out pretty sucky at first, that’s okay. Getting it prettied up is a process — a process that involves a whole lot of revision.

9. The hardest part is getting your butt in the chair. 

I’m very good at thinking of other things I could or maybe even should be doing. Like, there’s those dishes in the sink I already mentioned and maybe I should start my Christmas shopping on Amazon and I haven’t scrubbed the bathroom counter for a while. Suddenly everything else sounds pretty interesting. I wasn’t able to figure out a easy trick for this (actually, I don’t really know any easy tricks for writing period), but just forcing myself into the chair at my desk was usually a good place to start.

10. Writers write … a lot, and this is extra true of creative writing

I worked for four years as a college English tutor, so I’m used to the “writing process” as it relates to academia: researching, narrowing down ideas, organizing, outlining, writing, revising — and, Presto!, you’re done. Creative writing has pre-writing too which also can include research, but unlike academic writing there’s a whole lot more, well, writing.

I’d written pages and pages of notes before undertaking my first novel; I’d named all the characters, come up with family trees, and drawn a map of their town (this isn’t as impressive as it sounds because the town is extremely small). I’d come up with festivals and traditions unique to their town. And I’d written a short story based on my ideas in order to get a feel for how it might look and sound.

But … I’m going to scrap almost everything I wrote. The best parts about my 50,000 words you see aren’t the words themselves (although, I did write a couple pretty killer sentences among the muck), but the ideas that I came up with as I wrote. As I wrote I discovered, to my surprise, plot holes. I also discovered some things (like the age of my main characters and the perspective) weren’t working and will have to be rewritten completely. And I had some new ideas, ideas that I love, that will make it even better.

And, honestly, it would’ve been impossible for me to realize things like this by just brainstorming or outlining; I needed to actually see how it was working out. I needed to play with what I had on a page. And without some free form writing, I wouldn’t have come up with, what are now, some of my best ideas for my story.

I wrote 50,000 words and I don’t have a finished novel … but I have a novel and characters that I know better and a better sense of where to go with the next draft. (There are going to be a lot of drafts.)

What are some of the most helpful things you’ve learned about creative writing or blogging? What helps you keep perfectionism at bay?

When Being a Newlywed is Hard: An Open Letter on Our Anniversary

Flickr cc Seyed Mostafa Zamani

Flickr cc Seyed Mostafa Zamani

I overheard a woman say that marriage is hard.

When she saw me, the lone newlywed, she apologized — apologized that she’d said marriage might not always be candle lit dinners and long walks on the beach, cold sand between your toes, as the sun tucks itself in for the night. Apologized as if she were denigrating the apparent God of All Newlyweds — a bliss-filled, care-free, easy-going marriage. Apologized as if she were speaking a language I couldn’t possibly understand.

But I did understand. I do understand. We understand.

Exactly a year ago today, after joyfully crying throughout our entire wedding ceremony, we were pronounced husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs.

And all I can think to say is: we made it and I love you.

Some of the biggest highs and lows my life has ever experienced are not-so-neatly stored in the last 365 days. Wonderful and horrible. Hopeful and devastating. Joyful and agonizing. We’ve crammed more types of life into the past twelve months than I think some people pack into twelve years.

We made it and I love you.

Some memories I turn over and over in my mind, not wanting to forget a single glittering moment. Sometimes my camera was left hanging in the closet, journal entries purposefully left blank because I wanted the harshness and pain to eventually fade, even a little.

We made it and I love you.

There’s been doctor’s appointments — so many doctor’s appointments. New medications and side-effects. Panic attacks. Flash backs. Depression. There’s been the awkwardness of adjusting to living together. Lots of adjusting. Lots of growing up. Unpacking. Organizing. Figuring out routines. There’s been crying. There’s been laughter. There’s been feelings of insecurity.There’s been mandatory overtime that’s left you exhausted.There’s been crisis — true crisis, that left us both wondering if we’d even make it this far. There’s been joy. There’s been grief. There’s been loss.

We made it and I love you.

There’s been problems and pain from the world outside. There’s been joy and safety in our little world of two. There’s been hurt — hurt that our relationship is still healing from. There’s been love. There is love.

We made it and I love you.

I’ve learned this year that I love you more than I even knew. I’ve learned how badly my heart can hurt. I’ve learned I’m stronger than I imagined. I’ve learned that one of my favorite things in the world is when you reach out to hold my hand while you’re asleep. I’ve learned marriage, just like life, is hard — sometimes very hard.

We made it and I love you.

I’ve learned that the happy, smiley perfect wedding pictures lie. I’ve learned that sometimes life knocks the marriage-glitter out of your eyes early on. I’ve learned how romantic it can be to have your husband do the dishes when you’re too sick to get out of bed. I’ve learned that saying marriage is hard doesn’t mean you’re less in love.

We made it and I love you.

This is me carving in a tree stump, drawing with my finger in wet cement; this is me showing you I still care, deeply, with all of my heart. And hoping for many more years together.

We made it and I love you.

This year has been hard. And god knows I might hit the next person who tells me that because I’m a newlywed I don’t know what “hard” means. Even the experts say it’s been an especially hard year for us — for so many different reasons. But somehow we made it through.

And here I am a year after saying “I do,” saying we made it and I love you.

Happy first anniversary, sweetheart. Here’s to many more.

I’m talking about grief & weddings over at Offbeat Bride

It’s been almost exactly a year since my wedding, so the trails and tribulations of bridehood are behind me. But, in honor of my own experience with the fun and messy and sometimes downright horrible business of being engaged, I wrote a piece for the popular, quirky wedding site Offbeat Bride about what it was like to be a fatherless bride. Because sometimes, it was pretty rough.

I was practically dancing, I was so excited when I told my sister that I was engaged. But just two days later, I was hit hard by the reality that I couldn’t tell my dad my happy news. I sobbed like I’d only just been informed of someone’s passing. And it hurt just as much.

I was thrilled about being able to inject “when” instead of “if” into sentences related to our future, excited to upgrade my relationship status on Facebook, but I was grieving, too. Life’s messy. Sometimes weddings are messy. [continue reading]

I’ll be NaNoWriMo-ing this month, care to join me?

nanowrimo

National Novel Writing month is upon us yet again, and this year — for the first year in quite a few years — it’s at least a possibility for me because I’m not taking any classes. I’ve been attempting to get some blog posts in draft form so that I can still keep my blog at least somewhat active this month (of course, that will still mean revising them prior to pushing the “publish” button but it’ll at least make posting more likely). But I might still be a little scarce as I madly bang away on my keyboard trying to slowly — one word at a time — reach the elusive 50,000 word goal. (Honestly, though, I’ll be happy either way … but it would be nice to “win.”)

Are you doing anything special for National Novel Writing Month? Have you ever NaNoWriMo-ed before? And if so, any tips? And, of course, if you’re doing it this year, feel free to say hi on the site.

Flash Fiction: Syd and Nancy

Flickr cc Chichacha

Flickr cc Chichacha

“Good morning, Australia!” Ben beamed as he looked up from his bowl of Shredded Wheat. “How’s my favorite Aussie this morning?”

“No talk. Coffee no kicked in. And I’m not an Aussie and I don’t like to be called Australia. You know I hate to be reminded of the whys behind my parents’ ridiculous choice when it came to christening their first child. It’s like they needed to read How to Name Your Child for Dummies before being allowed near my birth certificate.” She rolled her eyes while refilling her white ceramic mug for the second time in the last 10 minutes.

“Your parents named you after their favorite vacation destination. And since they’ve traveled more than most cruise directors, naming you after their favorite little corner of the globe doesn’t seem stupid. It’s kind of sweet. Maybe they thought having you was as wonderful as a trip to Australia.”

“Sweet? Sydney, Australia was their honeymoon destination. They practically named me Honeymoon Baby. I’m forever saddled with the reminder that my parents knew a thing or two about ‘the birds and the bees.’ They might as well have named me Hot Night in the Hotel in Sydney.

“Hot Night in a Hotel — hey, I like it!”

“You know you shouldn’t provoke me,” Sydney said with her usual morning glare. “I’m not responsible for anything I do or say before 8am.”

“You know, you would’ve still been saddled with a reminder that your parents had some after-dinner fun, even if they hadn’t chosen to name you after their honeymoon. Being alive in and of itself — well, besides I guess for the few folks who started off in petri dishes — is a reminder of their parents and the birds and the bees. Yeah, it’s kind of weird. But most people just don’t obsess over it.”

“I’m not obsessing. It’s my kinky parents who decided to proclaim to the world forevermore that I was the result of their honeymoon. It’s as if I have to put Honeymoon Baby on applications.”

“No, it’s really not like that at all.”

“Yes, it is! The kinky freaks.”

“Maybe they weren’t announcing it. Maybe they just really liked Australia. And maybe you’re reading too much into this because you’re just having coffee for breakfast. Here, have some of my scrambled eggs.” Ben scooped some of his eggs onto Sydney’s plate, which had previously been occupied by a solitary piece of nearly-burnt toast. “Maybe your parents didn’t want any of their grandparents worrying it had been a shotgun oh-my-god-she’s-pregnant wedding?”

“They’d been living together for years before finally getting hitched.”

“Oh that’s right. Scratch that theory then. Why are we even talking about your parents’ sex life? This doesn’t exactly make good breakfast-time conversation. I think I’m losing my appetite.”

“Imagine how I feel — every single day.”

“Guess it explains why you only have coffee for breakfast. I’m not sure why you’re so worked up about this today though. You’ve had 32 years to process the fact that your parents, at least once in their married lives, had sex.”

“Don’t give me that, Ben. You’re the one who brought it up!”

“Okay-okay. Just drink your coffee and don’t bite anyone. I promise I won’t call you Australia again. I was just trying to come up with a cutesy nickname. Isn’t that what couples do? And we’ve been living together for almost five years and I still don’t have a sickeningly sweet thing to call you. But Hot Night in a Hotel is currently a finalist.”

“You’re impossible.”

“I could call you Syd.”

“Now I sound like Sid Vicious! I’d rather be named after a honeymoon than a psychopath.”

“I’ll make a mental note of it. Well, on a less bizarre note, we need to do laundry sometime this week. I’m almost out of work shirts. I’ll run the wash if you fold them.”

“Deal. I’m at the dregs, too. I’m almost out of underwear — had to wear the sexy ones today.”

“Having to wear the sexy undies because you’re almost out: that pretty much sums up marriage,” Ben said with a teasing wink. “And you wonder why your parents wanted to remember their hot night in Sydney?”

“Whatever, Nancy.” Sydney rolled her eyes again and took a bite of her scrambled eggs.